street fights

The Succession Battle Inside One of New York’s Most Secretive Real-Estate Families

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photos: Getty

One of New York’s most secretive real-estate families is currently at war with itself. In November, several members of the Goldman family, heirs of Sol Goldman and his Solil Management real-estate portfolio, sued the de facto head of the company, Goldman’s youngest daughter and co-chair of Solil, Jane Goldman. The suit has been framed as a real-life succession battle, with Jane accused of sidelining other family members after the death of her brother, Allan, last year and mismanagement of the portfolio, which is worth billions and once included the Chrysler and Cartier buildings. The plaintiffs, Jane’s sister Amy Goldman Fowler and her deceased brother’s three children, claim that Jane is lowballing the value of the company to cheat them out of money as she maintains iron-clad control of the family’s holdings, going so far as to keep tabs on employees via closed-circuit TV. Her “deep-seated sense of entitlement is matched only by her paranoia,” they allege in the lawsuit.

The family has kept a low profile since the late 1980s, a period in which they were the largest landlord in the city. Rather than developing buildings, Sol Goldman, who named the firm after himself and his wife, Lillian, focused on buying rental properties and building up large assemblages of land, collecting ground-lease rents from trophy buildings like the Stanhope Hotel. “The main point is not to sell anything,” Goldman told Forbes in 1985. “Everytime I sell, I’m sorry.” Despite a wobble in the 1970s, during which time the Chrysler building was foreclosed on, the family has significant land holdings worth billions throughout Manhattan, including large swaths of midtown.

When Sol died in 1987, a splashy family drama unspooled for years, but the clan has lain low in the decades since. That is, until the most recent suit put them back in the spotlight. So who are the Goldmans, what do they own, and what are they fighting over?

What’s this new lawsuit about? Jane’s sister Amy and her nephew Steven Gurney-Goldman claim that she usurped power after Allan died last year, the Real Deal has reported. The company, they say, is supposed to be run jointly by all four branches of the family.

The suit also alleges that Jane is responsible for undervaluing the real-estate portfolio in an attempt to buy family shares for less than they are worth. After years of arguing over the management of the company’s 250 properties, the family worked out the share-buyback system, “allowing them to cash out their stakes by selling them back to the family company,” according to the Real Deal. But while the value of the shares is determined by an appraiser, that appraiser also works for Solil. The other heirs take issue with the fact that the portfolio, initially appraised at $2.6 billion, was shaved down by a half-billion dollars after a series of adjustments.

The lawsuit also accuses Jane of being a micromanager who, according to the Real Deal, “spends her days watching live feeds of the company’s employees through a high-tech surveillance system resembling something from a casino floor.”

Jane, unsurprisingly, disagrees. “It is unfortunate that the plaintiffs have resorted to sensationalistic and baseless allegations in their campaign to try to extract unfair benefits for themselves,” her attorney, Jason Cyrulnik of Cyrulnik Fattaruso, said in a statement to the Real Deal.

What’s the history of the firm? In 1939, Sol Goldman, the 17-year-old son of a Brooklyn grocer, used $5,000 saved from his bar mitzvah and odd jobs around the neighborhood to buy his father’s struggling grocery store. After wringing a profit out of the store, per a piece in this magazine from the 1980s, he started buying up foreclosed buildings for $5,000 each, partnering with a childhood friend to amass an empire across Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan during the 1950s and ’60s. The firm’s holdings, a web hidden beneath LLCs, were so infamously secretive that in 1972 a German artist created a groundbreaking work mapping all 350 of Goldman’s properties.

The Goldman family enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, living in Manhattan hotel suites and ferrying between the city and their Long Island estate in two Rolls Royces, but Sol was a notoriously cheap patriarch, per New York. (Once, during a reconciliation dinner with his wife, Lillian, he allegedly overruled her when she tried to order fresh raspberries for dessert because cookies came free with the meal.)

The firm ran into trouble in the 1970s, when property values plummeted and they were unable to meet many of their mortgage obligations, but it rebounded when those values recovered in the 1980s. Today, it’s valued in excess of $2 billion and includes the land beneath the Gramercy Park Hotel and a midtown block that includes the Olympic Towers, the Cartier mansion, and the Peninsula Hotel, per Forbes.

Who’s the rest of the family? Sol and Lillian met in 1941 and married seven months later. They had four children: Allan, Diane, Amy, and Jane. Lillian told New York Magazine that Sol was hard on Allan, his only son — “Sol didn’t like male children,” she said — whom he ousted from the business after his partner complained about Allan’s quality of work. Allan eventually came back into the family business, but it was Jane who emerged as her father’s successor before he died. “Jane decided she knew how to do things better than anyone else,” Lillian told New York in the 1980s.

This can’t be the first succession battle, right? When Sol died in 1987, he and Lillian were in the midst of on-again, off-again divorce proceedings. Lillian’s children tried to cut her out of the will, claiming she’d abandoned their father and wasn’t entitled to the one-third cut of his estate she’d been promised in the most recent agreement they’d drawn up. Only they’d previously spent years insisting the agreement was valid because otherwise, Lillian was potentially entitled to half the portfolio. At the time, the fight over the family fortune made national headlines. (Adding to the drama, Allan’s estranged daughters from his first marriage also sued to make sure they got a fair cut.) Estimated to be worth between $1 billion and $2 billion, it was the richest estate ever battled over in New York Surrogate Court, dwarfing the $500 million Johnson & Johnson estate by several orders of magnitude. Lillian’s one-third agreement ultimately stuck, but when she died in 2002, her estate was divided among her four children, according to Forbes.

In 1989, Allan’s estranged daughter Cindy told the Los Angeles Times that money was always used to control people in the family. As the paper put it, it was “doled out when they behaved, snatched away when they didn’t.”

What’s been going on since? After that battle, the family has remained almost entirely under the radar. Jane reportedly gave her last interview to the Real Deal in 2008, when she said “I think we all have regrets about that period. It’s a blip on the whole picture of who my father was and the things he accomplished.” As the family continues to make the bulk of its money off rents from apartments and ground leases and hasn’t made any splashy purchases or sales in recent years, it’s mostly stayed out of the news. Until now.

A Secretive New York Real-Estate Family Battles for Control